A new study from University of Montreal researchers suggests a way to prevent, reduce or delay cannabis use among at-risk youth.
Experts say that youth at risk for cannabis use are often sensitive to anxiety or negative thinking. Furthermore, those who are impulsive or sensation-seeking are known to be at greater risk of substance abuse.
Cannabis users may be at risk of neurocognitive deficits, reduced educational and occupational attainment, motor vehicle accidents, exacerbation of psychiatric symptoms, and precipitation of psychosis.
Adolescents are particularly at risk as the adolescent brain is still developing. Youth who have used marijuana have been shown to have less ability to sustain attention and control impulses; thinking may also be impaired.
“Marijuana use is highly prevalent among teenagers in North America and Europe,” explained Dr. Patricia Conrod, who led the study.
“As attitudes and laws towards marijuana are changing, it is important to find ways to prevent and reduce its use among at-risk youth. Our study reveals that targeted, brief interventions by trained teachers can achieve that goal.”
The study involved working with 1,038 high-risk British students and their teachers at 21 secondary schools in London. The children, who were in ninth grade (Year 10), were identified as being at high risk by their responses to a clinically validated personality assessment.
“The students voluntarily participated in two 90-minute cognitive-behavioral sessions that were adapted to their specific personality type. These sessions involved learning from real-life scenarios described by other at risk youth, and were designed to show how people manage risk. Cannabis was not directly mentioned but was discussed if the students brought it up,” said Ioan T. Mahu, first author of the study.
“There were signs that the program delayed onset and reduced frequency of cannabis use in all youth who participated in the interventions, but the results also consistently showed that the program was particularly effective in preventing cannabis use among those most at risk of using — sensation seekers,” said Conrod.
Approximately 25 percent of high risk youth took up cannabis use over the course of this two-year trial. The intervention was associated with a 33 percent reduction in cannabis use rates within the first six months after the intervention and then reduced frequency of use another six months later.
“Within the group at greatest risk for cannabis use, sensation seekers, the intervention was associated with a 75 percent reduction in rates of cannabis use six months post intervention, as well as significant reductions in frequency of use thereafter,” said Conrod.
Drug use was ascertained by the use of anonymous questionnaires that the participants filled out every six months over the two years following the start of the study. The assessment protocol included a number of procedures to filter out students reporting incorrect information.
Sensation-seekers are people who require a lot of stimulation, and they are willing to take greater risks than most people to obtain experience excitement. They also tend to be less inhibited and less tolerant of boredom.
“Sensation seekers are particularly at risk of cannabis use among this young age group. It is possible that other personality traits predict cannabis use at older ages,” Mahu said.
“Future studies should look at the motivations for cannabis use amongst people with other at-risk personality types in order to develop intervention programs that are as effective as this one has been for sensation seekers.”
According to Conrod, “given the well-documented and deleterious effects of early-onset marijuana use among teens, prevention and delay of this behavior is of utmost importance for the public, particularly as society experiments with different public policies to regulate cannabis-related harm to society.”